Becoming a Product Designer in Germany

Becoming a Product Designer

How do you turn your experience at university into your dream job in the creative industries? Take a look at the course Falko Schnelle took, from art school in Darmstadt to his dream job designing toys.
by Diana Perry

For the last two years, Falko Schnelle has worked as a product designer for Olifu, a small German company that produces toys for kindergartens. Falko is a rare example of someone lucky enough to figure out what he wanted to pursue as a career while he was at art school–and actually end up doing his ideal job. In Falko’s case, that meant designing products that help children explore “play,” something that he sees as central to the way that we learn, grow, express ourselves, and have fun throughout our lives.

Olifu sells directly to kindergartens and schools worldwide, supplying them with all the play products that they need, from games and puzzles to tricycles and building blocks. Because the products are intended for use by many children, they must be more resilient than typical toys. Olifu’s product range is designed for kids ages 1 to 6, and they also produce some games for use in senior citizen homes. Three times a year the design team presents new products to the company’s sales representatives, so Falko is always working on ideas for new products.

Falko’s title is Product Designer, but his job really entails product design, product development and product management. “I start with an idea, do research into it, develop more ideas, experiment, then create first samples, then try to develop the educational aspects of the toys, get back first samples and thoroughly check them and make alterations. What’s important for me is the whole process, from the first scribbles, through research and samples, and ultimately the final product and the customer opening the packaging.”

Falko’s day starts punctually at 8 am, and as one of only two designers at Olifu, he is always working on multiple projects simultaneously, all at various stages of production. Each day is different and requires a fair amount of juggling and lots of communication with internal and external people. And during all of this, he needs to find inspiration for new designs.

“The deep thoughts about the projects often come when I’m somewhere else, lying in bed… Big ideas don’t usually come in the office, but more when I see something that connects in my head with something else I’ve already seen, tapping into ideas in my subconscious.”

And it can help to have many projects on the go at the same time, he says. “I really like to switch from one project to another because it refreshes me, especially when I get stuck on something, and it gives me new inspiration so I feel fresh when I go back to the first project. But on the other hand, it can get tiring to get pulled out of something when I’m in the middle of a process…it can be really distracting.”

Falko earned his degree in product design from the Hochschule in Darmstadt (University of Applied Arts). In order to be a successful product designer, you need to be able to tackle problems with artistic and technical approaches. “Product design is something where you want to solve problems and come up with a solution to do something better… My studies gave me a good sense for how to organize a process,” Falko explained. “But what I learned in my studies is that it’s up to you. I think that’s the way it is when you’re doing any studies linked to art or artistic practices: it’s all up to you. They can teach you how a process should be organized, but in the end everything depends on you and what you want to learn and which direction you want to go in. If you don’t do it, no one will do it for you.”

He decided to study at the Hochschule Darmstadt in part because the university’s curriculum emphasizes the importance of hands-on training and apprenticeships. Because he was required to learn the basics of working with many different materials, Falko had the chance to experiment with a vast range of design and production techniques. At Darmstadt, Falko could choose which professors he studied with, and he really searched for other students to collaborate with, many of whom turned out to be graphic designers.

A key component of his time at the Hochschule was the internship required as part of the degree program. He had been fascinated by Japan and its culture from a young age, so he spent a semester in Tokyo for his internship. Falko wanted to study in Japan in order to understand the incredible attention to detail and material important in many Japanese crafts. In addition to his internship in Tokyo, Falko also took advantage of the ERASMUS program in Europe to spend a semester studying in France. “In Germany,” Falko says, “there is an emphasis on finding the best working solution. When I was in Paris studying, I discovered that the emphasis in product design is more on storytelling. Function isn’t the first thing: it’s more of an emotional thing.”

Studying and working in other countries helped Falko appreciate and learn about different approaches to product design and experience other points of view. When asked what advice he would have for a student hoping to become a product designer, Falko emphasized the importance of having as much varying experience as possible. “Have a more open view. Travel to other countries. Do internships. An internship can turn into a job, or an apprenticeship, so if the first internship doesn’t click, try another one to see what your thing is. After university is over, you’re on your own to find out what you want to do. Sometimes the best thing before you leave university is to know what possible career options are out there.”

Finding a job

Despite knowing that he wanted to design products related to play and creativity, it wasn’t totally clear to Falko how to go about turning his degree and work experience into a job. “After I finished my studies,” Falko said, “I was afraid to send out portfolios because I didn’t know what I could really do that people would pay me for.”

After graduating with his Diplome (one of the last before the system changed to the BA and MA), Falko decided to put his knowledge to the test and design a product from conception to production. He came up with a design for a birdfeeder, which was a simple product to manufacture, and set up his own company, Ping Pong Studio, to produce a small batch of them. He was presenting his birdfeeder at a design fair in Munich when he met his future boss. It was thanks to his initiative and willingness to take risks to get noticed that Falko landed the job he has now.

One of the most important aspects of his design job is being part of a team, collaborating with his fellow designer and bouncing ideas off others. Falko believes he first learned about the power of artistic collaboration through playing in a band, Safari Sounds, which he has been a member of for years. “Playing music with a band has taught me that when different people with different backgrounds come together, and everyone contributes something, out of that something greater is created than what I could do on my own. I see that as well with product design. Everyone brings different ways to work as a team.”

Interested in a career in the arts?  Check out these articles for further reading...

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by Diana Perry